The following story appeared in the April 8 Idaho Catholic Register.
By Emily Woodham
Saint Gemma Galgani was canonized not for her ecstasies, the stigmata she bore or for her prophecies. She was canonized for her virtue.
Two of her siblings ridiculed her throughout her life for her religious fervor, and a family doctor accused her of being mentally ill. A priest she had known from the time she was a little girl thought she was a fake. Although the ridicule and accusations hurt Gemma, she never complained or retaliated. Instead, she forgave those who hurt her and prayed for them.
She saw in her suffering an opportunity to be more closely united to Jesus on the Cross. To be near God was truly her happiness.
Gemma was born on March 12, 1878 in the region of Tuscany, Italy. She was the fourth of eight children, and the oldest daughter. Her father, Enrico, was a pharmacist and provided a comfortable middle class lifestyle for his family. When Gemma was 2, her father moved his family from the countryside to the city of Lucca to give his children better opportunities for education.
Gemma was so devout and intelligent, it was decided she should be Confirmed at age 7. Her mother was sick with tuberculosis and dying, but she was comforted that Gemma would be Confirmed before her death. Gemma’s mother died four months later, in
September of 1886.
At first, all of the Galgani children were dispersed to different relatives while Enrico grieved his wife’s death. After two months of mourning, he brought his children home in time to celebrate Christmas together.
Gemma was sent to a school that was operated by the Sisters of St. Zita. She enjoyed being in a religious atmosphere. She excelled in all her studies. While the Sisters noted that she was an exemplary student, her peers struggled with her quiet nature and accused her of being prideful. Gemma explained that she was quiet because she feared saying something sinful. However, the teasing continued.
She received First Holy Communion at age 9, years earlier than was customary at the time. The priest at the school said he was afraid she would die from longing if he didn’t let her receive. She received her First Communion on the Feast of the Sacred Heart of
Jesus, which falls on the Friday after the Octave of Pentecost. (The Sacred Heart was one of her favorite devotions.)
In 1894, when she was 16, her oldest brother died of tuberculosis. Soon after, Gemma became bedridden with an illness for three months. When she recovered, she did not return to school. Instead, she decided to help her father, who was struggling with finances from medical bills.
In 1897, her father lost everything. All of his property and income were seized because of poor business decisions. He died penniless that same year. With no inheritance to help them, Gemma and her younger siblings were taken in by relatives.
Gemma’s relatives were not as tolerant as her father had been of her constant prayers, going to daily Mass and spending time in church with the Blessed Sacrament. They wanted her to marry and move out. However, she was determined to fulfill her dream of being a religious. To her relatives’ consternation, she turned down two marriage proposals.
She returned to Lucca to live with another family and became seriously ill. Her spine became curved and inflamed. She had lesions on her scalp and lost her hair. She suffered in agony for more than a year.
She had visions of St. Gabriel Possenti (who at the time was not yet beatified), Jesus, Mary, and the devil. She endured surgery without chloroform on tumors on her spine and head. Then on Feb. 23, 1899, St. Gabriel told her in a vision that if she wanted to recover, she needed to pray a novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Novena ended on March 3, the first Friday of the month. She confessed her sins, received Holy Communion, and was healed.
Gemma believed her healing was a sign to enter religious life, but none of the communities would receive her, fearing that she would become sick again. Gemma refused to become embittered about not being able to realize her lifelong dream. She surrendered her plans to Jesus and became content with a domestic life with relatives.
A priest who was a Passionist (a member of the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ) became her spiritual director. After examining Gemma carefully to see if she was mentally ill, he realized she was telling the truth about her experiences.
She continued to have visions and experienced ecstasies and levitations. Then on the eve of the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1899, she received the stigmata. For a year, she would receive the stigmata during her Holy Hour on Thursday nights. Then the stigmata would leave on Friday afternoons or Saturday mornings. Her health became so deteriorated that her spiritual director demanded that she pray for the stigmata to cease. She obeyed, and they did not return.
Gemma continued her intense prayer life, suffered other manifestations of Christ’s Passion, and served the poor as much as her health would allow. In 1903, she became sick with tuberculosis and died on April 11. Because of her love for the Passionists and their love for her, the Sisters of the Passionists gave the family a habit for her for her burial.
In testimonies for her beatification, witnesses said that no one could tell by being with her that Gemma suffered so much. They said she was joyful and truly beautiful with a graceful, peaceful presence.
After an intense investigation into her life by the Vatican, St. Gemma was canonized in 1940. She is the patron saint of many, including pharmacists, students, those suffering with headaches and those struggling with temptations. Her feast day is April 11.
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